I’m working on a paper at the moment, about what a complex phenomenon opting out really is. You’ll often see stories in the media of people who have opted out of their careers to do something completely different: move to the country and raise chickens, sell their house to buy a sailboat and sail the world, open a hotel spa in Thailand, or a café just down the street. These people all seem so happy and it all seems so easy. But opting out is anything but easy.
Those who opt out, generally go through a relatively major crisis that pushes them to take the step. So that which in the colorful pictures of smiling people in magazines looks like an easy, obvious, and sometimes quick decision, really is the result of major feelings of doubt and insecurity, as well as careful deliberation and planning, before daring to take the step and adopt a new lifestyle. And to be completely honest, daring is the wrong word to use here because the people who opt out, rarely feel that they were brave and that they dared to do anything. After having gone through what they did, opting out and in seemed like the only option and was simply something they just had to do.
But even then, even after having taken the step, even though they know that this was what they had to do, they continue to feel uncertain, and they continue to have identity crises as they struggle to come to terms with their new selves and lifestyles. This is because when you have dedicated years to working in a certain way, it becomes such a great part of your identity that leaving often causes an identity crisis.
Now, you may be thinking, she really is painting a painful picture of opting out. But after having finally found and adopted their new lifestyles, the people who opt out and in feel authentic, fulfilled and, yes, happy. Even so, they continue to have moments of doubt, moments when they struggle with their choices.
It is precisely because the opting out phenomenon is so multi-faceted and multi-layered that I never seem to tire of studying it. Opting out is good and it is bad – although mostly good, judging from how the people I’ve interviewed feel about how things turned out. And this complexity reflects life in general. Nothing is all good or all bad. No one is always happy, confident, and successful. No one is supposed to be. That would just be boring.
On bad days – days when I feel like a fraud, thinking any second now people will notice I have no idea what I’m doing – I look at other people; people in the media, for example, who are so successful and seem to have purposefully made it to where they are, knowing exactly what they were doing every step of the way. However, although this may dazzle me for a second, I know that their journeys weren’t any more painless or any less filled with doubt and insecurity that anyone else’s. Experience has taught me that in reality things very seldom go as planned. Unexpected opportunities come up, or plans fall through, making us choose alternative paths, and afterwards we add causality and coherence to our stories, giving meaning to actions, choices, and events in retrospect. Having a coherent life narrative is, after all, important.
But although we try to act otherwise, in reality life is messy. So if you’re worried that you’re the only one who feels lost, or who doesn’t have it all figured out, don’t. No one does. We all just make it up as we go along.